FLORIDA: On a cool Friday evening in Florida, while beaches and restaurants are brimming with weekend crowds, not everyone is given the luxury of enjoying the weather. Some Muslims at a local mosque in South Florida are spending their two day break learning how to use 40,000-volt tasers and pepper sprays.

Nezar Hamze, a deputy sheriff at Broward County, trains Muslims at a local mosque in the South, teaching them self-defence. But unlike other self-defence classes, Hamze prepares his students for a completely different challenge: a possible attack on a mosque by a “radical” American fuelled by anti-Muslim sentiments, currently on the rise in the United States.

According to Hamze, anti-Islam sentiment particularly peaks during election years. Right-wing extremists attack Muslims to rally support and build followings by pitting one community against the other. “They insult Muslims, they insult Islam,” Hamze says. “Because certain groups in the US like that.”

The 'Muslim problem'

The Dec 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California involving a Muslim couple that killed 14 people, made American Muslims—who make up 1 per cent of the United State's total population—anticipate a possible backlash. That possibility became a reality as mosques began being vandalised and Muslims stalked and abused. Many were receiving death threats.

Meanwhile, Republican frontrunner candidate for the 2016 US Presidential elections Donald Trump used the shooting incident to further his campaign. He made bizarre suggestions, ranging from banning all Muslims from entering the US, to making Muslims wear special badges—a practice disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, however, successfully gave rise to a new term: the ‘Muslim Problem’ in the US.

Hope amidst hatred

“Trump’s statements regarding Muslims have hurt many people,” says Zahid Qureshi, a resident of Broward county. “We have no idea what will happen if he becomes the president.”

Qureshi’s wife, Sameena, has noticed an ongoing feeling of fear amongst Muslims, especially women. “Muslims are quite afraid of retaliation,” Sameena says.

Read: Muslims happy with life in US despite discrimination: poll

She blames both the politicians and the media for the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric. But while she is disturbed by increasing discrimination, she is also confident that the Muslim community’s situation will improve with time.

“Most Americans are not complicit in Islamophobia,” Sameena says. “They believe discrimination is against the basic foundations of this country.”

Sameena’s experience in the United States has taught her otherwise. She knows non-Muslim Americans are fair minded and support the Muslim community. “It gives me hope,” she asserts.

Read: Paris attacks aftermath: UK’s Muslim women bear the brunt as hate crimes jump 300pc

Mindsets and tasers

Deputy sheriff Nezar Hamze believes that self-defence classes for Muslims are not enough; it is the mindset which Muslims need to change.

Nezar particularly wants Muslims to get out of their “guest mentality” and to stop acting like victims. Hamze is also a representative on the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which was established in 2001 to challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, and to defend their civil liberties.

“This is our home,” Hamze says, commenting on the way Muslims are considered outsiders. “We have rights in our home which we can assert. That’s the biggest overtone of this training.”

Read: Facing backlash, US Muslims counter with new advertising campaign

Hamze himself has been victim to anti-Muslim sentiment. After videos of him giving self-defence training to the Muslim community went viral online, he faced calls for removal from his position of deputy sheriff by anti-Muslim activists.

Hamze, however, has chosen to patiently ignore such statements.

Rallying to vote

Part of the strategy in hitting back against anti-Muslim sentiment is to take charge of the narrative. In a rare Muslim caucus organised in Florida, for example, Muslims decided they would register their votes for this year’s presidential, and with a country-wide population of 1million, US Muslim voters could make their presence felt simply by voting, and will help put pressure on politicians like Donald Trump.

“Muslims at the moment do not have a voice in any political stature,” says Shahida Shakir, an organiser at the caucus. But America, she feels, is fair when it comes to shaping policies. Muslims can take the first step to integration themselves by taking part in local elections, followed by the Congress and then eventually, the Senate.

Read: The Pakistani-American dilemma: Guests or citizens?

But while political representation will take some years, there are other ways the Muslim community can start partaking in the process of American democracy. Randall Kaufman, who chairs the humanities and social sciences department at the Miami Dade College, feels that voting is the best move: Americans will start to see there is a persecuted group when that group shows up in large numbers to participate in the country’s electoral process.

“It’s a very powerful statement,” he says. “It is important to be heard and seen in the process of democracy.”

Local politicians also believe that political participation will help Muslims address misconceptions about themselves, and will help them take ownership of how they are perceived.

“Once a community starts fighting for themselves and starts telling people who they are,” explains Ken Evans, a Broward county democratic state committee member. “Then people start accepting them differently.”



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